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Columbia’s Sports Management Conference Examines Critical Topics in the Business of Sports

This past fall, the M.S. in Sports Management program hosted its fourth annual Columbia University Sports Management Conference. The sold-out daylong event featured more than 300 sports industry leaders, thought-makers, and disruptors along with Sports Management faculty discussing critical topics in the business of sports today and in the future.

The annual conference gives students in the program access to professionals in all sports industry sectors, allowing them to network and learn from people in the field making real-time decisions. Keynote speakers included Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer; Jon Miller, the president of Acquisitions & Partnerships at NBC Sports; and Otmar Szafnauer, F1 Team principal. In addition to moderated talks with experts, students were given the opportunity to ask questions following each keynote.

The conference kicked off with Major League Soccer studio host Jillian Sakovits interviewing Don Garber. During the 30-minute session, Garber shared important lessons learned from his decades of experience in the industry, from his time promoting the 1984 Olympics to working with the NFL to change its halftime shows into the cultural sensations they are today. He also provided insight into the first-of-its-kind deal that MLS made with Apple TV, where it worked closely with Apple CEO Tim Cook in a move that ultimately saw a significant uptick in MLS attendance in the 2023 season. 

The second keynote speaker, Jon Miller, addressed the rapidly changing future of sports business, the way NBC Sports secured Big 10 football, and the pivotal role Peacock played in the network’s economics by making NBC one of the few networks dividing their offerings between broadcast and streaming, allowing more eyes on content. At the conclusion of his half-hour remarks, Miller was asked what advice he had for students in Sports Management. 

“Having firsthand experience through internships or real jobs in the business is critical,” said Miller. “I think it’s important to be able to write. Too many people come in and can’t write. They can’t put together a proposal. They don’t have the basic, fundamental writing skills. Having good, strong writing skills is important, and, I think, from the business side, to have an understanding of finance. Don’t be afraid to try something outside of your wheelhouse. You’re young enough now that you can make a mistake. Taking on uncomfortable jobs can make you better and more equipped when you go to your next job.”

Chris Lencheski, a lecturer in the Sports Management program, interviewed longtime F1 Team principal Otmar Szafnauer, who talked about the importance of building a solid team. For Szafnauer, the key is staying away from micromanagement and making sure there’s plenty of empathy for others. He underlined the importance of working toward a shared goal. “You have to make sure,” said Szafnauer, “that everyone is pushing in the same direction.” 

Keynote lectures were only one element in the conference’s numerous and varied sessions. Featured panel discussions included “The Impact of New Technologies on Sports Media & Marketing,” moderated by Tom Richardson, an adjunct lecturer and the SVP for Strategy and Business Development at Mercury Intermedia; “Sports Business Leadership: Repositioning the Landscape,” moderated by Mary Wittenberg, an adjunct lecturer and a former president of Gotham FC; and “Analytics in Context,” moderated by Joanna Levy, an adjunct lecturer and the senior director of Sportsbook Analytics at DraftKings; and several others.

“The 2023 Columbia University Sports Management Conference was another success, showcasing insights from some of the top leaders in the sports industry,” said Scott Rosner, professor of professional practice and director of the M.S. in Sports Management program.  “The event and the networking opportunities it provided to students highlighted Columbia’s unique advantage of hands-on learning in New York City, a global sports business destination.”

Watch the 2023 keynote speeches here. The 2024 Conference will take place in the fall. More information will be available later this spring on our conference website.

About the Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Sports Management provides students with a comprehensive curriculum and access to sports industry practitioners and influencers. Students acquire skills in areas such as entrepreneurship and innovation, global sports management, facility and event management, and sports law and ethics.